The Cheshire women’s rights campaigner and her lifelong fight for equality

Until her statue was unveiled in downtown Congleton, many people had not heard of the name Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy. Yet she can be counted among the pioneers of the women’s rights movement in the UK.

Spending much of her life in the Cheshire town, she fought for better education for girls, worked on legislation to improve property rights and spoke out on marital rape at a time when such a concept was completely foreign. She also founded the Union for the Emancipation of Women (UEO) and was later described as “England’s oldest suffragette”, although it is said that she was in fact a suffragist.

Fast forward to today and Elizabeth’s Congleton-based group is now on a mission to make her work more widely known. As well as the erection of the statue in March, there are also roads named after him – Elmy Avenue at Miller Homes’ Turnstone Grange development in Somerford and Congleton Link Road, now called Wolstenholme Elmy Way.

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Sue Munro, from Elizabeth’s Group, told Cheshire Live: “We want people to remember this wonderful woman, talk about her achievements and love her as much as we do.

“I think it’s very important for the girls of this generation to know where we came from and why the women in-between fought. The suffragettes leaned on what Elizabeth did and now we lean on her shoulders .”

Born in 1833, Elizabeth spent much of the early part of her life around what is now Greater Manchester. She became headmistress of a girls’ school in Worsley and spoke before the Taunton Commission in 1853, helping to persuade Parliament to grant girls education up to the age of 13.

She also worked with Josephine Butler on the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act. The law was passed in 1864 with the aim of controlling sexually transmitted diseases and meant that women, especially prostitutes, could be forcibly examined.

Sue Munro, in purple, with members of Elizabeth’s Group who received a £200 donation from Miller Homes

Sue said: “They worked together and got that act repealed. It was major work she did that is not remembered at all.”

Sue said Elizabeth started her school at Worsley “because of the deplorable state of girls’ education at the time”. She remained at school until 1867, when she moved to Congleton and met her future husband, the feminist Benjamin Elmy.

The couple would go on to work on a number of pieces of women’s rights legislation. This included the Married Women’s Property Act.

Sue said: “If a woman had property or money and she got married around this time, it all became her husband’s property. They literally lost everything.

“It was major legislation – it paved the way for equality. Once a woman could marry and still own her property – it was a big step forward.”

Then Elizabeth and Ben “almost went bankrupt” when they campaigned for the Infant Guardianship Committee, which led to the Infant Custody Act 1874. The law gave women more rights, including access, to their children.

Sue said: “Before that, children belonged, again, to the male in the family. If a marriage broke down, a woman could be left completely destitute and the children automatically went with the husband. Some women never saw each other again. their children never again.”

As she was also one of the most well-known atheists in the country, Elizabeth would also court controversy. This includes the time she had stones thrown in the street in Congleton when she brought in prominent atheists Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh to give a talk.

Sue said: “After that it was the struggle for the vote, which they tried time and time again. Of course it was blocked by Parliament. She became the first woman to work for the movement of women. She lobbied Parliament – wrote hundreds of letters a day.

“She was known as the scourge of the commons. They all knew who she was and they had a (suffrage) bill that came to the house, that was debated. Elizabeth pretty much gave up then, she was quite old and went into retirement which did not last very long because in the 1890s she came out of retirement.”

Elizabeth also spoke of the famous Clitheroe case in 1891. It involved a man named Edmund Jackson who kidnapped his wife Emily and claimed her marital rights (sexual rights or privileges).

The information board next to the statue of Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy in Congleton
The information board next to the statue of Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy in Congleton

Sue said: “Elizabeth stood up in public and spoke about marital rape which was really shocking at the time because it was not English law at the time. It was not possible for a man to rape his wife – it was his right to do so.

“But Elizabeth fought that famous case and won it. So she set the precedent that a woman’s body is her own body.”

She and Ben, described as “incredible pacifists”, also campaigned against the Boer War. At one point they barricaded themselves in their Buglawton home in protest.

After the dissolution of the WEU in 1899, she began working with her friend and colleague Emmeline Pankhurst in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the precursor to the suffragette movement.

She appeared on stage with Pankhurst and the first Labor leader, Keir Hardie, in Trafalgar Square in 1906. Elizabeth then left the WSPU, apparently when the group’s activities began to threaten human life.

Elizabeth died on March 12, 1918, 12 years after her husband. Sue thinks she has dementia and was moved to a nursing home before she died.

Sue added: “She just did amazing things. Way ahead of her time. She did so much and she was either forgotten or deliberately left out of history.”

On what Elizabeth would have thought about the state of gender equality today, Sue said: ‘I don’t think she would think the job was done by any means.

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